Now here's a bad combination: You haven't gotten a flu shot and you're traveling by some form of mass transit over the holidays. Either get your vaccine now or cross your fingers for luck. According to public health authorities, this year's flu season has started exceptionally early, and being in packed airplanes or trains is bound to hasten the spread of illness.
While more Americans are heeding the message to get an annual flu shot each fall, millions of people are still unprotected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Increasing flu activity should be a wake-up call," Dr. Melinda Wharton, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a national news conference recently. "For anyone who has put off vaccination: It’s time to get your flu vaccine now."
According to the CDC, 18 states have already reported widespread flu activity with some of the most intense outbreaks in the south-central and southeast part of the country. Last year, the flu season occurred late—peaking in mid-March. It was also a mild season. An early start to flu usually indicates a more severe season, Dr. Brian Currie, vice president and medical director for research at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant dean for clinical research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told TakePart.
"Flu epidemics, which is what they are every year, are best described as predictably unpredictable," he says. "But to have such an early onset of flu season has people concerned. It looks like we may be in for a longer and more severe season. One of the circulating A strains this season has historically caused more severe influenza."
The good news, he says, is that the vaccine this year is well-matched to the major strains in circulation. Everyone ages six months and older should get vaccinated each year, according to the CDC. And, although vaccination rates have been improving somewhat in recent years, only about 37 percent of the general public got vaccinated last year.
Moreover, most people get the vaccine prior to Thanksgiving. Flu vaccine is available at doctors' offices, clinics and pharmacies throughout the winter. Most adults will build up good immunity against the flu about 10 days after getting the vaccine.
"There is still ample opportunity to get the vaccine," Currie says. "Anyone who's in large groups of people or who's in close spaces, they are certainly going to be at risk for getting flu. If you are intending to travel, or even just going out and doing Christmas shopping, there is a great amount of risk in getting the flu."
Previous studies show air travel greatly increases the spread of communicable diseases, such as flu. A 2006 study in the journal PLoS Medicine found that flu cases could be correlated with monthly airline passenger volume.
There's not much downside to getting the vaccine, Currie says. It's low-cost, or even free at some public-health clinics. And it doesn't cause the flu. "There is still a misunderstanding that you can get the flu from the vaccine," he says. "Flu vaccine is killed vaccine. There is no living virus in them with the exception of the nasal vaccine."
Those who get the flu, meanwhile, can face a week of misery at best and, at worst, complications that could result in hospitalization.
"I highly recommend that people take advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated this season," Currie says. "People are worried about the vaccine. But getting the flu is a serious illness. People should be reminded that every year as many as 30,000 people die from influenza infections."
Question: Why do some people ignore recommendations to get the flu vaccine? Tell us what you think in the comments.
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.